Artists, Protesters and Bare Naked Ladies

Perhaps surprisingly, and contrary to what some people inside and outside Turkey would have you believe, local newspapers and TV channels here are full of reports and comments criticising the government of Tayyip Erdoğan for its handling of the Taksim Square protests and pretty much everything else, from the actions of a 16th century Ottoman sultan, to the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Maybe the writers are being secretly thrown into prison, but you’d think their families might have got the news out somehow. My Turkish colleagues at work are all alternately crying and laughing over Youtube, Facebook and other social media postings, none of which have been closed down by the government. Still, Western media seem convinced that Turkey’s oppressed citizenry are rising against an autocratic dictator, along the lines of Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad. I’d like to comment on two of these articles.

The first is an interview, entitled ‘Turkish Artists Respond to the Wave of Protests Rocking their Country’ which appeared in an online artmag Blouin Artinfo (thanks Margie). The italicised lines are direct quotes. My comments follow.

Taner Ceylan and his fellow artists are supporting the democratic protests against unwarranted police violence. What makes them especially democratic rather than just ordinary protests, I wonder?

“The result of the last ten years has been a lack of respect for human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech,” Taner explained. I have seen no evidence of this. On the contrary, I would say all these areas have seen considerable improvement in the last ten years. Generals and other military officers who presided over coups, killings and torture in the past have been brought to trial. Another group who were planning a coup to oust Erdoğan’s democratically elected government were caught and put on trial. It is now possible to discuss openly issues surrounding Kurds, Alevis and other minority ethnic and religious groups in a way that was forbidden when I first came to Turkey in the 1990s.
He [Ceylan] mentioned the disproportionate number of journalists currently imprisoned in Turkey. I keep hearing this. Journalists is an emotive word in this context. The Turkish mainstream media seem to publish criticism of the government with impunity as far as I can see – though there are issues where you need to be careful. Turks don’t like people slanging off MK Atatürk, the founder of the republic, or siding too publicly with expatriate Armenian pressure groups, for example. Incidentally, PM Erdoğan himself, while serving as mayor of Istanbul, spent four months in prison in 1999 after the parliamentary Islamic party, of which he was a member, was banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, and he spoke out about it.
Upper section of a Taner Ceylan painting.
No prizes for guessing what the lower section shows.
He said he and other artists had received death threats as a result of the content of his work in recent years. Well, you can’t really blame the government for that. I received a death threat once myself, as a teacher back in New Zealand. There are crazy people around in every country, I guess. Still, if you deliberately set out, as an artist, to challenge people’s religious beliefs, you can’t reasonably be shocked if you get the occasional extreme reaction. One of Taner Bey’s paintings features a veiled Ottoman lady juxtaposed with the work of French artist Gustav Courbet known as L’Origine du Monde. The interviewer coyly and somewhat euphemistically describes the female figure in Courbet’s picture as naked from the waist down. She certainly is! And no doubt Ceylan’s painting would upset some people – but I have to assume that was the point of the exercise in the first place.
“Cultural centers are being closed and censored,” he added. “Big projects, such as mosques and bridges, are being realized without asking citizens for input.” Ceylan said the government’s decision to replace a park in Taksim Square with a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks was a breaking point for many citizens. In fact I see new cultural centres springing up everywhere, along with commercial and residential skyscrapers, shopping malls and, yes, mosques. There is a huge building boom going on all over Turkey, not just in Istanbul. In addition, there are major public transport projects completed, under construction or planned, aimed at relieving Istanbul’s and Turkey’s notorious traffic problems. The vast majority of ‘citizens’, I believe, are happy with these. Central and local governments have been building, and are continuing to build,  parks and recreation areas on a phenomenal scale, providing free open-air fitness centres, cycle and running tracks, picnic areas and sports facilities which are enormously popular. Should every project, public and private, be opened for public debate? It seems to me there is unrestricted opportunity for groups or individuals to express their opinions – the Marmaray underground project, for example, is years behind schedule because of the need to allow archaeologists access to the excavations. See my previous post for a picture of the Ottoman army barracks and a comment on the plans for Taksim Square.
The whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Sounds impressive until you try to figure out exactly what the sentence means.  As I often say, Turkey’s biggest problem is the lack of a credible and effective opposition party to provide a legitimate voice for protest and alternative proposals, without which a democracy cannot properly function. Once again, however, it’s a little unfair to blame the democratically elected government for that. Should they start up a puppet alternative party as Atatürk himself did once or twice in his day? You’d think it was really the responsibility of responsible, democratically minded citizens to do that for themselves, given that, as far as I am aware, there is no prohibition on doing so.
The second article I would like to comment on was published the other day in Foreign Policy Online, entitled How Democratic Is Turkey?
Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous — the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power.  Well, yes. So what seems to be the problem?
Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. OK, I see. But whose fault is that? See above.
Replying to criticism, Spokesmen and apologists for the AKP offer a variety of explanations . . . from “it’s the law” and the “context is missing,” to “it’s purely fabricated.” These excuses falter under scrutiny and reveal the AKP’s simplistic view of democracy.  They also look and sound much like the self-serving justifications that deposed Arab potentates once used to narrow the political field and institutionalize the power of their parties and families. Once again, it sounds good, but what does it actually mean? Why don’t AKP’s opponents get their act together and organise a party capable of providing Turks with a genuine alternative in parliamentary elections? There are plenty of issues of vital interest to citizens that such a party could address. And what, pray, is the relevance of deposed Arab potentates to a popularly elected and successful political party?
Turkey’s new alcohol law, which among other things sets restrictions on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., curtails advertising, and bans new liquor licenses from establishments near mosques and schools, is another example of the AKP’s majoritarian turn. I don’t know about your country, but New Zealand certainly has restrictions on alcohol advertising in newspapers and cinemas, and the sale of alcohol in stores late at night. I seem to recall some restrictions in the UK on selling alcohol on Sundays – no problem buying it from supermarkets etc on Fridays (or Sundays) in Turkey. There are certainly restrictions on the consumption of alcohol at large public gatherings in NZ and Australia. In Turkey there have always been limits on licensed premises near mosques – and why not, one might think? Schools too, for that matter. Majori-what? Is that even a word? If so, what does it mean? Maybe the writer would prefer minoritarianrule, as Turkey mostly had in the past.
Over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk. Resist what? At the risk of what? Tell me Republicans don’t have such an informal coalition in the US, the Conservatives in the UK, and the National Party in New Zealand. It seems to me the AKP would be mad if they didn’t try to get business interests on their side. And if they didn’t, it’s very likely those interests would tend to coalesce of their own accord around a government as successful as this one (see the statistics above). Besides, I have seen no evidence of anything in Turkey resembling Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy, for example.
Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey’s insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey’s lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Well, I think I dealt with this one earlier. However, I would go further, and say that, if Turkey has become a one-party state (whatever essentially means) the blame can be laid almost entirely at the door of the opposition Republican People’s Party and that hard-line Kemalist elite who ruled the country with insipid coalitions and military support before the appearance of AKP on the political scene in 2001.
The AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan might have been elected with an increasing share of the popular vote over the last decade, but the government’s actions increasingly make it seem as if Turkish democracy does not extend farther than the voting booth. What can you say to that? What percentage of eligible voters turn out for elections in the United States? And ask the ‘99%’ who occupied the parks last year what they think about post-ballot box democracy.

By the way, for a shorter and more balanced piece in the same online magazine, click here.

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